Understanding the Stress Response

You’re relaxing at home on the couch and all of the sudden you hear a loud crash outside your window.

What is your immediate reaction? How does your body respond?

How about this – you’re on a walk in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and all of a sudden a big, angry dog comes at you. Does your body tense up, become more menacing, or prepare to bolt?

…what about if you hear an enormous tree branch falling above your head?

Your reaction may vary depending on the situation, your genetics, and your personal history, but your response is not a conscious decision. Your nervous system responds to threats before your conscious brain even registers what is going on. Your autonomic nervous system sends signals to your system to prepare it to fight back, run away, or freeze, depending on the severity of the threat.

When the founder of TRE, David Bercelli, was working in war zones, he noticed all people, regardless of their age, race, or background, instinctually curled up to protect their internal organs when bombed. Interestingly, the muscles used to curl up – the hip flexors, neck, shoulders, and chest – are the very muscles which tend to be contracted in people who suffer from chronic stress!

The Impact of Stress and Trauma

Our world is sick with chronic stress. Stress and trauma exist on a continuum and are more than just psychological concerns; they influence the entire system. In the United States alone, about 3/4 of the adult population suffers from physical complaints from stress ranging from headaches to frequent illness and even heart attacks, and about 3/4 of people suffer from psychological complaints such as insomnia, anxiety, depression, and even personality changes. In fact, stress is the most common reason for doctor visits. Stress is rampant. It is keeping us from feeling fully alive, and it is killing us.

Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist well-known for decades of trauma research, has said: “neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.” A practice exists which is specifically designed to help reduce stress, connect people with the present moment and their inner experience, and even process trauma.

That practice is TRE.

What is TRE?

Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) were created by the clinical social worker David Bercelli, Ph.D. TRE is a modality for helping people become more grounded in their bodies and present-moment experience, become more aware of their habitual patterns, release tension, stress, and trauma, and develop resiliency and aliveness.

TRE turns on a natural shaking mechanism inherent in all creatures to discharge stressful energy. Think about it: does your dog or cat shake when a storm comes? Have you ever trembled during an important speaking event or interview? This is because stress hormones are pumping through your system to help you fight back or run away. If you are standing still, the energy has to be discharged somehow.

According to Peter Levine, the creator of Somatic Experiencing, shaking also helps an organism calm down after a threat has passed, and signals to the brain that the threat is over. Shaking is seen as a sign of weakness in Western cultures, so most people tense against their tremors. This adds extra tension on top of stress, and the brain never gets the message that the stressful event has passed. The result is a nervous system which constantly believes it is under threat and a person who never feels calm or safe.

TRE transforms stress and trauma by helping people find and “turn on” this natural shaking response. This is done through completing a few physical exercises, under the guidance of a trained provider, and then allowing the body to shake and do whatever else it needs to do to instinctually heal.

5 Benefits of TRE
1. Gain a sense of groundedness. Grounding includes getting in touch with the internal state, other people, and the environment through sensory and somatic activities. The grounding component alone is a solid resource for people struggling with trauma and symptoms such as anxiety, obsessive thoughts, and attention difficulties through exercises which help you get in touch with yourself, your environment, and the people around you.
2. Come back to your body. The tremors themselves provide an excellent point of focus for those out-of-touch with their bodies. The tremors are quite novel to many people, and I’ve frequently heard from clients that it is much easier to remain present in TRE than it is during a body scan or other mindfulness practice since there is more to pay attention to. TRE has also been nicknamed “shaking meditation!”
3. Learn to emotionally self-regulate. TRE helps you learn what your “edge” is, physically, mentally, and emotionally, through an emphasis on mindful awareness of your internal experience. It also helps you become more empowered because you have the choice and physical ability to stop at any time. This is an especially important resource if you are a trauma survivor who has undergone situations where you felt powerless over your internal state or external situation. TRE also helps you monitor and influence your internal state, making it a strong self-regulation practice by putting the power back into your hands not only during TRE practice but also in emotionally tough times in daily life.
4. Become mindful of your patterns. TRE is also a platform for you to become more familiar with your personal patterns. For example, if you struggle with concentration in daily life, feel tense in new situations, or space out, for example, these patterns are likely to play out in your TRE practice. Thus, TRE builds mindful awareness of patterns which may not be serving you so you can discover and adopt new ones.
5. Discharge stress and relax. The tremors discharge stressful energy and are particularly helpful for burnout, anxiety, stress, and trauma. If you suffer from these issues, you have a high amount of stress hormones pumping through your system, which can make it challenging to concentrate, slow down, connect with others, and meditate. TRE is a practice to discharge this energy and bring you to a state of groundedness and presence you may not have experienced before. In some cases, TRE can help you process traumatic situations by trusting the body and allowing it to do what it needs to heal and regenerate itself.

I am on track to become a TRE provider and will be certified in summer 2019. Stay tuned for announcements about offering individual sessions, group sessions, and retreats by joining my mailing list!